Mayo Clinic evolved gradually from the frontier practice of Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his two sons, William J. and Charles H. Mayo. The elder Dr. Mayo emigrated from his native England to the United States in 1846. He became a doctor in 1850. In 1863 he was appointed a surgeon for the enrollment board in southern Minnesota, to examine recruits for the Union Army. In 1864, the Mayos moved to Rochester where the enrollment board was headquartered. Dr. Mayo remained in Rochester after the Civil War ended.
Dr. Mayo's two sons began their medical training early -- first by observing and then later by assisting their father on patient visits and with autopsies. Dr. Will said, "We came along in medicine like farm boys do on a farm," learning by doing. After graduating from medical school -- Dr. Will from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1883 and Dr. Charlie from Chicago Medical College of Northwestern University in 1888 -- both sons returned to Rochester and joined their father's practice.
In 1883, a tornado swept through Rochester leaving in its wake many deaths and injuries. Temporary hospital quarters were set up in offices and hotels. Nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis, a teaching order, were recruited as nurses. The experience inspired Mother Alfred Moes to request that the Drs. Mayo join with the Sisters to build the first general hospital in southeastern Minnesota. The 27-bed Saint Marys Hospital opened in 1889 as a result of this partnership.
Pressed by demands of their busy surgical practice and the exploding growth of medical knowledge, the Mayo brothers invited others doctors to join their practice. The group was the beginning of a new way to practice medicine. "It has become necessary to develop medicine as a cooperative science; the clinician, the specialist and the laboratory workers uniting for the good of the patient," explained Dr. Will. "Individualism in medicine can no longer exist." Group practice also was a natural expression of the Mayo brothers' personalities. As Harry Harwick, business administrator for the practice, wrote, "The first and perhaps greatest lesson I learned from the Mayos was that of teamwork. For 'my brother and I' was not mere convenient term of reference, but rather the expression of a basic, indivisible philosophy of life."
In 1919, the Mayo brothers dissolved their partnership and turned the clinic's name and assets, including the bulk of their life savings, to a private, not-for-profit, charitable organization now known as Mayo Foundation. "We want the money to go back to the people from whom it came, and we think we can best give it back to them through medical education," said Dr. Will.
From this point on, the Mayos, their partners and all future Mayo Clinic physicians would receive a salary and would not profit personally from the proceeds of the practice. All proceeds beyond operating expenses were contributed to education, research and patient care. The brothers established a board of governors and a committee system to provide effective oversight of many aspects of Mayo life, thereby reinforcing the cooperative spirit of the founders.
One day in 1928, Dr. Will announced unceremoniously to his secretary that he had just completed his last operation. He was 67 years old. Dr. Charlie's retirement came a year and a half later. The brothers continued to serve the Clinic as surgical advisors and on the Board of Governors until 1932.
Dr. Charlie died May 26, 1939. His loss was followed just two months later by Dr. Will's death. Their dear friend and long-time associate, Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey, the pioneer superintendent of Saint Marys Hospital, died in March of the same year. 1939 was indeed a somber year at Mayo Clinic. But it is a tribute to the Mayo brothers' foresight that the organization continued to thrive in the absence of its founders.
More than six million people have been treated at Mayo Clinic since its frontier founding. Today, it encompasses three clinics and four hospitals in three states, employing more than 40,000 physicians, scientists, nurses and allied health workers. Through growth and change, Mayo Clinic remains committed to its guiding principle, as articulated by Dr. Will, "The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered."